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Published Date: July 31, 2018

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Philemon in Light of Galatians 3:28

Paul’s letter to Philemon presents a real-world example of how Paul interacted with churches and individuals based on the unity he proclaims in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). This article addresses Paul’s development of koinōnia (“fellowship,” “partnership,” “sharing”) in the church that meets in Philemon’s house, and how koinōnia supersedes the hierarches that were so prevalent in the NT world.1 First I discuss how Paul uses hierarchy in Philemon, focusing on how Paul subverts the system of slavery. Then I examine family relationships in this letter to demonstrate how Paul subverts expected power differentials between Gentiles and Jews and between men and women. Next, I look at the kind of power Paul exerts in his petition to Philemon, since he is not using his rank as an apostle to command his “dear friend and co-worker” (vv. 1, 9). Finally, I discuss koinōnia in Paul’s understanding of the church and its relationship to power structures, especially the hierarchy within the slave system. Although Paul recognizes (and potentially participates in) the various power relationships in this world, he believes that hierarchies are just that—of this world. Because his focus is on the next world, Paul is concerned with living in the Spirit—living in this world by the principles of the next world. He does so by superseding various kinds of earthly hierarchies with koinōnia, which he enacts in Philemon by announcing Onesimus as an active and equal participant in that koinōnia, by calling Gentiles his family members, and by addressing Apphia as having at least equal influence with the men in her church.

Hierarchy in Philemon

Paul asks Philemon to receive his runaway slave,2 Onesimus, back as a beloved brother and even as Philemon would welcome the apostle himself. Not all scholars consider Paul’s request to be an example of egalitarian theology. Pieter J. J. Botha, for example, asserts that through his use of the language of slavery and kinship, Paul here demonstrates his participation in and approbation of the hierarchical systems of master over slave in the Greco-Roman world. Botha believes that, because Paul does not openly call for the end of slavery, this letter is mainly a matter of property management, and we should hold Paul accountable for not calling for an end to slavery.3 Botha believes that even the familial language Paul uses is meant to affirm Paul’s superior status as an apostle over the church that met in Philemon’s home—Paul’s authority would determine who is called a brother, while Paul’s position as a father, complete with all the rights and privileges of a paterfamilias, is implicit throughout the letter.

Does Paul use his status as a citizen to manage Onesimus as property? Does Paul use his status as a father to affirm the lower status of Philemon, Apphia, Onesimus and the church that meets in their home?

No Longer Slave or Free

Does Paul, a Roman citizen, participate in keeping Onesimus as a slave? He does not directly ask Philemon to manumit him4 and he does express the hope that Onesimus would be able to return to him to serve him. However, just as Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as Paul’s representative (v. 17), which “effectively put[s] the slave (Onesimus) over and above his (other) master (Philemon) in the Church,” Paul “hopes that Onesimus will be able to serve him as Philemon’s representative. Onesimus in this role is not a slave, but an ambassador for both of these men.”5 So rather than using his power as a citizen over Onesimus, Paul shares that power with him. It must be noted that “serve” here in v. 13 (“so that he might be of service to me” NRSV) is diakoneō rather than douleuō, a distinction which removes Paul’s reference to service from the realm of slavery.

Paul is not the only active party in this relationship. Ulrike Roth claims that Paul and Philemon are discussing Onesimus as a property asset in their koinōnia agreement,6 and Botha claims that “although the outcome of the rhetorical act [of Paul’s petition] is of direct interest to Onesimus, he exerts no influence, nor does he contribute any options.”7 Sung Uk Lim, on the other hand, focuses on Onesimus’s agency as the initiator of the situation that requires this letter in the first place. Lim suggests that Onesimus is the one who finds Paul in prison, and through his conversion and imitation of Paul (1 Cor 11:1), shows himself to be a “tactful character, able to maneuver the power relations between Paul and Philemon in order to undermine the authority of his master and, by implication, the imperial rule reflected in the system of slavery.”8 This view of Onesimus as an active participant in his relationship with Paul further blurs the lines of hierarchy as, through Onesimus’s initiative and Paul’s response, Philemon and Paul become not only citizens of the same empire, but brothers and father, and Onesimus becomes not only a slave but a son, brother, and, as we saw earlier, a representative of them both.

Paul lived in a particular context. While he states that it is better to be free (e.g., 1 Cor 7:23), he also lived in a world that could not imagine itself without slavery.9 He lived in a world where he could face serious legal repercussions for not returning a fugitive slave.10 He lived in a world where slaves were considered things rather than people.11 Within such a world, Paul was able to restore Onesimus’s humanity by recognizing his status in Christ, and he expected Philemon to accept that as well, by recognizing Onesimus as his beloved brother (v. 16).

Although Botha finds it “extremely problematic” that Paul does not acknowledge the violence inherent in slavery and call to an end of the suffering,12 I submit that Paul wrote this letter to acknowledge that very point! He recognizes that Onesimus is vulnerable to serious repercussions upon his return to Philemon;13 and (probably in response to Onesimus’s request) Paul is doing everything in his power to prevent that suffering.

For Paul and the early church, this world is passing away (1 John 2:17). The new world, the kingdom of heaven, is coming soon—Jesus says it is even already here.14 Paul’s entire focus is on pressing forward into the next life (Phil 3:13–14). His vision is to bring kingdom concepts into the structures of this world. So yes, Paul recognizes the institution of slavery and uses that language. But for Paul, slavery among Christians is the outer shell of social hierarchy filled with the Spirit of the kingdom of heaven. “Onesimus, once converted, remains a slave under the rules of the ‘old’ world . . . whilst becoming an equal under the rules of the new world.”15 And he can be these things simultaneously just as the kingdom of heaven is simultaneously here and coming. Paul knows he cannot eliminate slavery. But he does everything he can to eliminate the violence and suffering of slavery within his churches by presenting Christian slaves like Onesimus as brothers with their masters. Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus the slave the same way he would welcome Paul the apostle, their spiritual father. Paul completely upsets the ranks of the hierarchy of slavery.

No Longer Greek or Jew, No Longer Male and Female

This letter is like a modern birth announcement. Paul has given birth to a son,16 and he is introducing Onesimus to Philemon and the church in his home as a new member of the family. Paul calls Timothy, Onesimus, and Philemon brothers, he calls Onesimus his child, he calls himself a father, and he calls Apphia a sister. He is speaking about this church as if it were a family. It is commonly thought that this church was in Asia Minor,17 and that the people who comprised the church were Gentiles, including Philemon, Apphia, and Onesimus.18 We first learn in Acts 10 that Jewish Christians are now able to share meals with Gentiles, and in Acts 15 we read that some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles were not Christians unless they had also become Jews; but Paul tells the council at Jerusalem that God “has made no distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews]” (Acts 15:9). In Philemon, Paul is going beyond seeing Gentile Christians as saved—he is calling them his own family! There is no difference between Greeks and Jews in Paul’s churches.

The Greco-Roman family was governed by strictly tiered hierarchy with the father on top, then the mother, then sons, then daughters. But we do not see these lines of power reflected in the letter to Philemon. Rather, Paul is simultaneously a father and a brother—and he makes an appeal (rather than a mandate) to his brother Philemon, who, as a brother also to Onesimus and a man who owes himself to Paul, is also Paul’s son. He asks Philemon to welcome (his brother) Onesimus as if he were their father, Paul. Apphia, a sister, a woman, is listed before Archippus, a man, in Paul’s greeting, a feature so peculiar in that time period that even hundreds of years later scholars were still trying to explain it. For example, Jerome (AD 342–420) explained Apphia’s precedence in Paul’s list by saying, “This is what the apostle says when writing to the Galatians, that in the faith of Christ it makes no difference whether someone is a Gentile or a Jew, man or woman, slave or free. Likewise, this becomes clear in this passage . . . Apphia . . . does not seem to be ranked by her sex, but by her merit.”19

Not much is known about Apphia. Scholars suggest she could be the wife of Philemon or Archippus or Philemon’s sister or even daughter.20 It is possible that she is a partner in a missionary team21 or perhaps she is simply a leader in the church that meets in Philemon’s home. What we do know is that she is greeted before Archippus, whom Paul had given a special job to do (Col 4:17). This positioning mirrors the precedence that Priscilla had before Aquila four out of the six times the couple are mentioned in the NT, though such ordering is quite rare.22 In the letter’s ancient context, that Apphia preceded Archippus probably meant that she had greater influence in the church leadership. Ross S. Kraemer even argues, “That Paul explicitly names Apphia suggests that he seeks her consent to his request concerning . . . Onesimus, and therefore acknowledges her influential role in this church.”23 So we see that in Paul’s family, a sister is given at least equal influence with her brothers and, by extension, her father.

There is additional evidence that Paul is reimagining the family as having a flat power structure, in the Greek word Paul uses when he calls Onesimus his “child,” rather than his “son,” in v. 10:

The notion of rank is completely absent here. . . . Onesimus is Paul’s child (teknon); he is not his son (huios). The former connotes relationship, intimacy and minority, without the authoritarian dimension of the father-son relationship associated with the latter, especially as it was defined in Roman family life under the law and custom of the principate.24

This church is indeed a family—but it is certainly not one that adheres to any identifiable hierarchy. Paul is not using the language of family to remind Philemon of his power as a father. He is using the language of family to remind Philemon that they are equal in Christ and united in love, Greek and Jew, male and female, and that Onesimus has joined the family as a brother—even as Paul’s own heart (v. 12).

You are all One in Christ Jesus

Paul’s Power to Influence

We have seen that Paul subverts expectations of hierarchical power within this letter to Philemon. Let us now consider what power Paul is using in his appeal to Philemon. According to Timothy A. Brookins, Paul is making use of the ancient notion of auctoritas power.25 In the time of the NT church, there were two concepts of power: potestas, which is the right to command (which Paul would have had as an apostle), and auctoritas, which is the desire to influence and call to participation. The first is a power which is taken by leaders; the second is a power which is ascribed to leaders by their followers. Paul’s persuasive tactic is an excellent example of auctoritas power: he renounces his right to command as an apostle and he instead emphasizes his age, imprisonment for the sake of Christ, and role as a spiritual father. By doing so, Paul hopes to increase Philemon’s desire to obey his brother Paul.

In vv. 5, 7 and 9, Paul goes beyond the standard boundaries of auctoritas and invokes love as a reason for Philemon to grant his request on Onesimus’s behalf,26 much as Jesus does: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 NRSV). Jesus is not interested in forcing us to obey his commands to love God and love each other. Rather he renounced his rights and glory and descended to earth where he suffered even to death on our behalf (Phil 2:5–11). Because of his love for us and our love for him, we desire to obey his commands. This is the sort of relationship Paul is calling Philemon into. “Paul is not looking to establish new patron-client relations between himself and Philemon, but is seeking to establish a new criterion that transcends the Greco-Roman patronage system with entirely new relations made possible through Christ.”27 Paul is leaving behind the patterns of this world and pressing forward toward the patterns of the world to come.

What are these new relations that the church can experience in Christ? Koinōnia.

Koinōnia in Philemon

Philemon is structured as a chiasm, a literary device featuring inverted parallelism. Thus, many of the concepts Paul introduces in the first half of the book lay the foundation for the points he makes in the second half of the book.28 The letter’s main point, Paul’s petition, appears as a chiastic pair. Near the beginning of the letter, Paul writes: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ” (v. 6 NRSV). Then later in the letter, Paul makes his request: “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him [Onesimus] as you would welcome me” (v. 17 NRSV). Though these two sentences do not seem like a close pair in English, the word that is translated “sharing” is koinōnia and the word translated “partner” is its cognate, koinōnon.

The root of these words is koin-, which means “common” (for example, the NT is written in Koinē Greek, a language “common” to various cultures). Words from this root can, for example, refer to business partnerships, farm tax sharing, marriage relationships, civic associations, collegial associations, cultic associations, community, and shared tombs.29Koinōnia, the most common noun form of this word family, is an action noun (consider, for example, the English word “handoff”).30Koinōnia is the “manifestation of the relationships that exist between people who share together in a common thing.”31

Of the twenty-one times that koinōnia is used in the NT, Paul accounts for thirteen of those instances,32 and he develops an understanding of Christian koinōnia that expresses “our unity with one another and with God in Christ33 . . . [and the] identification and solidarity—of God with us. . . . The koinōnia we have with Christ is mutual. We are in him, and he is in us.”34 But this is not an ethereal concept that has no bearing on everyday life. Rather, “it is in the nature of the koinōnia God gives us . . . that the most profound dimensions of koinōnia are to be found in the utterly ordinary exercise of it”35—and that expression of spiritual koinōnia within the use of the ordinary structures of the world is exactly what we see in Philemon. It is koinōnia that allows Paul to call Gentiles his family. It is koinōnia that allows Apphia to participate fully in the leadership of her church. It is koinōnia that allows Onesimus to reestablish his relationship with Philemon.

In v. 6, Paul prays that Philemon’s koinōnia in his faith will become effective when he perceives all the good that might be done. The word translated as “effective” emphasizes “activity and productivity.”36 It can also be translated as “active,” “powerful,” or “productive.” Paul is praying that Philemon’s koinōnia (his sharing together with others in the faith of Jesus Christ) will produce action when he hears all the good that can be done for Christ. Then in v. 17, Paul reminds Philemon about this concept of active participation in his faith by calling him koinōnon—“partner,” “co-sharer” in the faith. Paul is suggesting that Philemon’s participation together in the faith (with Paul, Apphia, and now Onesimus) might be actively demonstrated by accepting his slave not only as a beloved brother (v. 16), but as Paul’s very representative!

Not only is Paul reminding Philemon that he is a koinōnon, this letter is his announcement that Onesimus is a koinōnon as well! Onesimus is now an active participant in the sharing together in a common faith with Philemon (and the church that meets in their home). Roth claims that Paul is writing to Philemon in order to manage Onesimus as an asset that Philemon is contributing to their shared faith community. But Onesimus is not an asset! He is a brother, a son, an ambassador of Paul who has even helped Tychicus (Col 4:7–9) carry news and a letter to the church in Colossae, which is likely the same church that meets in Philemon’s home.37 Paul has effectively obliterated any sense of hierarchy within the church’s experience of koinōnia. He has filled in the valleys and made the mountains low (Isa 40:4, Luke 3:5). In Paul’s church, Jesus has brought slaves, Gentiles, and women from the margins into the center of the church to take their place next to the free Jewish men.


Although Paul uses the language of worldly hierarchies, he follows the example of Jesus Christ. Paul lays down his authority, just as Jesus laid down his glory. Like Jesus, Paul humbles himself before Philemon and appeals to him on the basis of love. And he is asking Philemon to do the same thing—to lay down his authority as a Roman slave owner and consider the interests of his slave above his own (Phil 2:3–4). Paul transcends the hierarchy, and instead reminds Philemon that as Christians all three men—as well as Apphia and the church that meets in their home—are mutual participants in the love of Christ; and Philemon can take faithful action by acting like Jesus Christ and treating his slave as he would treat his spiritual father, to whom he owes his very self (v. 19). Paul ignores the earthly demands of hierarchy in order to press into the spiritual koinōnia of the kingdom of heaven.

While Paul does believe it is better to be free and affirms Christian slaves as freed men and women belonging to the Lord (1 Cor 7:22–24), Paul does not directly ask for Onesimus’s manumission.38 However, Paul has superseded the hierarchies of this world with the koinōnia of the next world to such a degree that Onesimus is a full and equal partner with his “master,” like Philemon with Paul and Apphia with Archippus. Although the people living in the Greco-Roman world might not have been able to imagine a world in which slavery does not exist, Paul’s churches leave the hierarchy of slavery behind as part of the world that is passing away, along with ethnic division and gender hierarchy. Paul removes the power differential from Philemon and Onesimus’s relationship (in their church), and he replaces that differential with koinōnia by asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul. Within the koinōnia of their faith, slaves and masters, Greeks and Jews, men and women, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—equal heirs in the gifts of salvation—can enjoy equal status together within the church.39


1. Koinōnia (and Onesimus’s role in that koinōnia) is a concept developed below.

2. Some scholars posit that Onesimus was not a runaway slave, but that he had sought Paul out to address a grievance against Philemon (e.g., Bernardo Cho, “Subverting Slavery: Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul’s Gospel of Reconciliation,” EvQ 86, no. 2 [April 2014]: 101). Some scholars even consider that Onesimus was not a slave but Philemon’s estranged brother, and that this letter is Paul’s attempt to encourage solidarity between Onesimus and Philemon and the church that met in his home (e.g., Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Letter to Philemon,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah [London: T & T Clark, 2009]).

3. Pieter J. J. Botha, “Hierarchy and Obedience: The Legacy of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2010), 260.

4. There were sometimes restrictions regarding whether a slave could be manumitted at all. Alan Watson, Roman Slave Law (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 23–34, 52, 66.

5. Ulrike Roth, “Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus: a Christian Design for Mastery,” ZNW 105, no. 1 (2014): 124.

6. Roth, “Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus,” 106–9.

7. Botha, “Hierarchy and Obedience,” 261.

8. Sung Uk Lim, “The Otherness of Onesimus: Re-reading Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the Margins,” ThTo 73, no. 3 (2016): 225.

9. “To expect that Paul would request Philemon to pioneer an abolition of slavery of sorts seems quite anachronistic—neither the slave revolts of the second century BCE nor the Stoics envisaged the termination of the institution of slavery.” Cho, “Subverting Slavery,” 110.

10. Cho, “Subverting Slavery,” 106.

11. See Watson, Roman Slave Law.

12. Botha, “Hierarchy and Obedience,” 283.

13. Cho, “Subverting Slavery,” 105.

14. 2 Thess 3:6–13 suggests that the church in Thessalonica was so looking forward to the return of Jesus that they had even stopped working.

15. Roth, “Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus,” 126.

16. Paul speaks of his churches and the people in them as his children and compares himself to a woman in labor in Gal 4:19.

17. Ross S. Kraemer, “Apphia,” in Women in Scripture: a Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, ed. Toni Craven, Ross S. Kraemer, and Carol L. Meyers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 53.

18. Most Roman slaves were thought of as property. See Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Judith Ryan, and Daniel J. Harrington, Philippians and Philemon (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2005), 170.

19. Jerome, St. Jerome’s Commentaries on Galatians, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Thomas P. Scheck (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 363. Note also that Jerome thought it possible that Archippus was the bishop of Philemon’s church (p. 360) and was at least an “apostolic man.”

20. Kraemer, “Apphia,” 52; Nicholas R. Quient, “Was Apphia an Early Christian Leader? An Investigation and Proposal Regarding the Identity of the Woman in Philemon 1:2,” Priscilla Papers 31, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 10–13.

21. Kraemer, “Apphia,” 53.

22. vanThanh Nguyen, “Migrants as Missionaries: The Case of Priscilla and Aquila,” Mission Studies 30, no. 2 (2013): 200.

23. Kraemer, “Apphia,” 53.

24. Callahan, “The Letter to Philemon,” 334.

25. Timothy A. Brookins, “I Rather Appeal to Auctoritas: Roman Conceptualizations of Power and Paul’s Appeal to Philemon,” CBQ 77, no. 2 (April 2015): 302–21.

26. Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon: A Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 198.

27. Thurston, et al., Philippians and Philemon, 190.

28. Thurston, et al., Philippians and Philemon, 182.

29. For an in-depth discussion of this word family in ancient documentation, see Julien M. Ogereau, “A Survey of κοινωνία and its Cognates in Documentary Sources,” NovT 57, no. 3 (2015): 275–94.

30. Jeffrey J. Kloha, “Koinonia and Life Together in the New Testament,” Concordia Journal 38, no. 1 (2012): 23.

31. Kloha, “Koinonia and Life Together,” 26.

32. Roth, “Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus,” 104.

33.Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, “Koinōnia: The Gift We Hold Together,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2012), 347.

34. Yoder Neufeld, “The Gift We Hold Together,” 344.

35. Yoder Neufeld, “The Gift We Hold Together,” 347.

36. Ernest D. Martin, Colossians, Philemon (Scottdale: Herald, 1993), 254.

37. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 186.

38. It is possible that Paul’s confidence that Philemon would do “even more” in v. 21 refers to manumission.

39. There is a possibility that the Onesimus of Philemon is the same Onesimus who later became the bishop of Ephesus (Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 186), which would indicate that Philemon did eventually free Onesimus.